Addicted to sex

Sexual addicts and compulsives often lead guilty, secret lives that can be helped through 12-step programs

With sex so ubiquitous, sex addicts can have a difficult time avoiding the triggers that may cause them to indulge their compulsions.<br>

With sex so ubiquitous, sex addicts can have a difficult time avoiding the triggers that may cause them to indulge their compulsions.

Photo by David Robert

John, Bill and Max settle into their chairs. It’s Max’s first time at the sex addicts’ meeting, so he won’t be asked to tell his story.

It’s Saturday, 5 p.m., in the Sunday school room behind a local church. The three men gather around two TV tray-sized tables spread with literature about sexual addiction. The men occupy chairs suited to their size, although most of the furniture stacked against the walls is intended for children not yet old enough to giggle when they hear the word “sex.”

Whimsical religious posters decorate the rooms. There’s a cartoon illustration of Jesus gazing softly over a group of doting children, and another of youth engaged in various wholesome activities. Framed pictures of “The Last Supper” and a Madonna with child image hang slightly askew on the wall.

This is where recovery begins.

John, with a Diet Pepsi and a bag of Sun Chips at the foot of his chair, recites Sexual Compulsives Anonymous’ statement of purpose: “To stop having compulsive sex … To stay sexually sober … To define sexual sobriety for ourselves.”

Then come first-name introductions.

“Hi, my name is John, and I’m a sexual compulsive.”

“Hi, John.”

“Hi, my name is Bill, and I’m a sexual compulsive.”

“Hi, Bill.”

Max reads the Twelve Steps to recovery. Bill, looking at ease in a basic Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts, reads the Twelve Traditions.

Then, John takes a deep breath and dives into his personal history.

“I was raised in a boundary-less home,” he says. “There were no boundaries of conduct whatsoever. My mother was an exhibitionist. My father was a voyeur. There was no privacy. You couldn’t go to the bathroom or take a shower without somebody walking in on you. If you ever closed and locked a door, you were asked why.”

John attributes his upbringing to his obsession with sex, particularly masturbating with pornography. Conversations in his childhood home were highly sexualized. There were frequent sexual innuendos and discussions about sex, which led John to believe there was nothing inherently private about sexuality.

John’s first hunch that something was wrong came when he was 5 years old, and he described to a neighbor friend why a dog had an erection. His description was elaborate, graphic and accurate. The friend’s parents were upset and offended; they told John’s parents that John had a dirty mouth.

John’s parents said it was the neighbors who had a problem, not their family.

When he was young, masturbation was part of John’s nightly ritual. Still, he didn’t think it was strange when his mom would come back into his room after he’d gone to bed. She never behaved as if she disapproved of what John was doing or that there was anything improper about her catching him. John realizes now that this behavior was bizarre and bordered on incestuous.

“I mean what mom doesn’t know to leave a teenage son alone when she puts him to bed?” he asks the group. “I noticed all the things that were different that happened in other people’s houses than what happened in my house. But if I admitted that my parents were wrong and bad, I’d have to admit that I was wrong or bad.”

The shame of sex
The name Patrick Carnes is recognized by most therapists and counselors working in the realm of sexual mental health. Most Reno therapists refer to the doctor’s book Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction as the quintessential resource on the subject.

“When a parent is sexual with a child, the child concludes at a fundamental level that in order to have a relationship, one has to be sexual,” Carnes says in Shadows. “When a child’s exploration of sexuality goes beyond discovery to routine self-comforting … there is potential for addiction. … When children’s primary source of comfort is sex, and yet they are told by those whose judgments count the most that to be sexual is perverse, the conclusions they make about themselves are clear. They are unlikable. They need to hide that central part of themselves which others will despise.”

The shame that planted itself in John’s psyche as a child and teenager finds a dwelling place in the minds of most sexual addicts and compulsives.

Often as a result of abuse, individuals grow up with unhealthy ideas about sex. When they later are forced to live in a world that frowns on sexuality as they understand it, they try to hide their desires and proclivities. Feeling something’s wrong or different with their sex drive, the compulsive person begins to feel isolated. Isolation drives them further into secrecy and further into the addiction itself, as they find relief in the endorphins that accompany sexual arousal.

Sexual addiction may be compared to alcoholism. Both involve an abnormal and compulsive relationship to a mood-altering, generally mood-enhancing, chemical. When the chemical is taken away, the addict experiences withdrawal.

“Sexual addiction is the compulsive acting out of ideas, as well as behaviors that bring sexual pleasure to the person engaged,” says Susan Smith, Ph,D., a psychologist in Reno. “The behaviors or the thoughts can be a wide variety of instances that involve merely fantasizing or getting on the computer with sexually loaded material to having extra-marital affairs, or getting involved in inappropriate harmful sexual activities.”

John tries to look at himself as someone who was tainted by unhealthy parents.

“I look at my upbringing and at culture to come to terms with who I am now,” he says.

Secrecy drives the addictive process—and addiction isn’t addiction unless the sufferer feels so guilty about his or her actions that he or she resorts to hiding them. Sometimes, the separate life an addict leads is thrilling in itself. There’s always a rush in thinking you might get caught.

A secret life
Bill realized at a young age that he had homosexual tendencies. In applying for a volunteer organization in his early 20s, Bill was asked if he’d ever had homosexual thoughts. He admitted that he had. Although Bill received a position with the organization, it wasn’t long before a homophobe read his report and decided he wasn’t the type of person the organization wanted.

After he was fired, Bill told his wife-to-be about the situation, along with the promise that he loved her. She accepted him. They got married and had children.

More than 30 years later, a concerned individual told Bill’s wife that she should be tested for AIDS, as Bill had been having numerous affairs with men.

His wife was devastated. Bill was, too. “I thought I was bisexual, but if I was married that it should go away,” Bill says. “For one and a half years, I was monogamous. At the time I was married, I was a virgin with women, although I’d been having sex with men since I was 16.

“I realized that getting married wasn’t like having a live-in prostitute. I was resentful, which can grow into an addiction. For the next 30 years of my marriage, I always had a secret male lover. I had 15 serious relationships and many other sexual encounters in places like bath houses.”Looking for answers, Bill suspects his homosexual-hypersexual nature may have come from having an emotionally distant father.

“I felt an intimacy and a closeness with these guys that I never felt with my dad.”

Photo by David Robert

Bill also felt more sexually free with men—behaving in ways he didn’t feel were appropriate to act with this wife. He connected spiritually and mentally with her, but the sex was not satisfying.

“That may be categorized and probably over-simplified by the Madonna-whore complex,” Bill says. “When people exhibit this symptom, they really love their wife, and they see the wife as almost a Madonna-type figure who is the mother of their children. It’s therefore hard to think of down and dirty sex [with her].”

Degrees of addiction
Carnes outlines three levels of sexual addiction that most addicts and therapists use for classification. Bill’s addiction falls into the Level 1 category, as does John’s compulsory masturbation. Level 1 contains all behaviors which are regarded as normal or tolerable: masturbation, repetitive promiscuous and emotionless sex between consenting adults, frequenting of strip clubs, prostitution and pornography addiction.

Many individuals who indulge in these activities may not have a problem. People can only decide for themselves whether their compulsory activities threaten their emotional, mental and physical health and their families’ well-being. Addicts also set boundaries for themselves, and when they cross those boundaries, it’s called acting out. For Bill, acting out equates to compulsive and anonymous sex.

Level 2 addiction includes actions that involve a victim, for which legal sanctions may be enforced, such as exhibitionism, voyeurism or making indecent phone calls.

Level 3 encompasses those criminal behaviors that have grave consequences for the victims and severe legal consequences for the addicts. Incest, child molestation and rape fall into this category.

In the early ‘90s, when his children were away for college and his wife was out of town, Bill would go to the video store and rent six pornographic tapes. He would masturbate until he felt satiated. He’d feel awful. But that didn’t stop him from renting more the next time she left.

The Internet also provided Bill with pathways of pornographic discovery that he’d never imagined existed.

“Dr. Carnes says, which I was skeptical of at first, that sex addiction is progressive,” Bill says. “For me, the Internet is progressive. When I put the Internet in at home, first it was pictures of naked men that I had to see to get aroused, then pictures of naked men with erections, then sex, then S and M, then bondage. Afterwards I would feel just awful. That’s one of the real insidious things about the Internet.”

When Bill views pornography now, he says he “stays away from the kinky stuff.” He was worried that he might end up going as far as snuff films.

Web of sex
“One of the biggest growing demands for therapy is people who find themselves in Internet sex addiction,” says Dr. Nancy Lee. Lee is a licensed marriage and family therapist and drug and alcohol counselor. She treats patients in both Reno and California.

“The Internet has opened up a whole new type of addiction,” Lee says. “I think it has created new sex addicts. I think it has become much more prevalent and is much more recent than other addictions.”

The Internet gives people the opportunity to explore avenues of sex they may have had greater difficulty exploring before, such as fetishes like bestiality or sadomasochism. Some therapists would argue that the Internet turns people who might just be slightly interested in pornography into compulsives.

Once a person has access to the Internet, other forms of pornographic stimulation may not provide the same rush they did before.

“We had a guy who came in, and he started out with Playboy,” Bill says about a man from a Sexual Addicts Anonymous meeting, “and after a while [Playboy] got to be boring, so he went to Penthouse, and that got to be boring, and then he went to the triple-X magazines. Then he went to videotape, and now he’s on the Internet, and every time he goes to the next stage, in a way, he gets more obsessive.”

The man Bill is describing could be John.

John is very familiar with the devastation to one’s life due to Internet porn obsession and masturbation compulsion. As he grew older, he became unable to control his urge to masturbate. Alcohol fueled his addiction.

Alcohol and sex addiction often overlap, as do many addictions—overeating and alcohol, gambling and alcohol, drug abuse and alcohol.

John used sex and alcohol to minimize his feelings of pain and anger. This went on until John fondled a minor when drunk. The girl told his wife. His wife insisted he go to AA.

But without alcohol, his sexual addiction intensified. John’s first search on the Internet was for Penthouse. Sometimes, John would rent pornographic films, find out the name of the leading lady and then take her sexy pseudonym to the search engine. He compares his Internet porn addiction to gambling.

“It offers unpredictable returns,” John says. “You play the same hand as in gambling … and you keep playing one more hand. I would delay orgasm because I didn’t know what the next image was going to be. It could be better.”

John would start surfing the net at 10 p.m. and wouldn’t stop until 4 a.m., which left him with two hours of restless sleep before he had to get up for work. When John went to a therapist for help, he told her about the incident with the minor. Although she initially didn’t think John was enough of a threat to report it, she called John after their session to say she felt obligated to call the police.

An investigator came the next day and took John’s statement. But John was seeking help, and when his day in court came, his attorney and the district attorney both argued for leniency from the judge.

John began attending Sexual Addicts Anonymous meetings, but he found stories of people slipping from sobriety time and time again discouraging, so he stopped going.

“This is a difficult disease to treat,” says the psychologist Dr. Smith, “and we unfortunately have no good scientific data as to the rate of success because there’s such a shroud of secrecy.”

“Sexual addiction in itself is being addicted to the sexual relief,” Lee says. Lee also acknowledges the lack of empirical data in regards to rates of recovery. “I think it has a higher recidivism rate because it’s harder to fight than other addictions. Usually it takes someone willing to remove their computer from their home and if possible their business.”

John often removed Internet access from his computer, like an alcoholic pouring out the booze, but it was never long before he reinstalled it. He and his wife divorced. Relationships that followed were failures.

“The lie that I learned was that sex equals love,” John says. “When I look at my relationships since high school, the pattern is serial monogamy. Once I had sex with a woman, it was, ‘That’s it! It’s love!’ and boy did I drive a few away.”

Sexual healing
Many sexual addiction recovery programs, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous included, follow the 12-step process common to many addictions. The 12-step path, born to help control alcoholism, is modified only slightly to suit other forms of addiction—replace the word “alcohol” with “sex,” and you’ve got SCA.

SCA, Sexual Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and Sexaholics Anonymous all focus less on group therapy and more on helping a person with individual spirituality.

“The SAA program is based strictly on Alcoholics Anonymous’ model, which doesn’t propose any one religion,” Bill says. “You can go in there, and you can be agnostic, Jewish, Hindu or Christian because all we talk about is a higher power. Whatever we believe is our God is what it is. A person decides in their own mind how they want to become spiritual.”

In Step 1, the addicts admit they are powerless over their addiction, that they have lost their ability to control it. Step 2 requires that the addict believes a higher power can restore their sanity, and Step 3, that they give themselves over to God, “as [they] understand him.”

Step 4 is the one addicts will tell you is the hardest, which is to make an insightful and bold inventory of oneself as part of the grieving process, which means confronting anger, fear, depression, loneliness and shame. Step 5 says that on top of just coming clean to God and yourself—which you did in the fourth step—you have to share your wrongs with another person, too.

Steps 6 through 9 begin to address eliminating the addiction and the negative consequences that followed in its wake.

Meri Shadley says sex is often a compulsion and not an addiction.

Photo by David Robert

Steps 10 through 12 are maintenance steps. Step 10 requires admitting when you’re wrong and continuing to take personal inventory. Step 11 is “[Seeking] through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

Step 12 involves a spiritual awakening and spreading the word.

“Twelve Step in the addiction field is one of the major movements,” Meri Shadley, Ph.D. says. Shadley has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 25 years. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Center for Application of Substance Abuse Technology.

Shadley says that few people are getting involved in the area of sexual addiction therapy. There are no official programs that she’s aware of in area. In the ‘70s, she studied sexuality, looking at sexual acting out and normal sexual behavior. This was at a time when the world was opening up to increased sexual activity. But sexuality from a treatment standpoint hasn’t received much attention since then.

“As far as the mental health field goes,” Shadley says, “you wouldn’t see the 12-Step as much as the self-help approach. In [the self-health approach], you would not be talking quite the same way about the powerlessness to deal with the compulsion or the desire to search for a higher power. Instead, you would be looking at some of the underlying factors that are interfering. … Perhaps the person’s not in a successful relationship, their social skills need some improvement or other self-esteem issues are needing to be addressed.

Shadley points out that a combination of 12-step and mental health-styled therapy can work well together, but some people find that one or the other works better for them in decreasing compulsive behaviors.

Shadley also says it’s important to use the word compulsion rather than addiction in many cases. Addiction can be too strong a word.

“Eating disorders are compulsions, not addictions,” she says, “and sex can be the same, it depends on what neural pathways are stimulated. … There are certainly people where the behavior is not an addiction, but more of a compulsive behavior. So just like in substance abuse, there may be people who are abusing, but not addicted, not dependent. … With Internet addiction, we start to see the behavioral aspects of it, it’s about the compulsive behavior. Once you’re [on the Internet], it just keeps pulling you in.”

Although the majority of clients therapists deal with are male, sexual addiction plagues women as well. Women, unfortunately, are less inclined to speak up or seek treatment. A negative stigma attached to hypersexual women feeds the sense of disgrace, since women who do want to seek help feel even more isolated and abnormal.

“I certainly see more sexual compulsive behavior in men that’s out in terms of being in the public eye and in the therapeutic eye,” Shadley says. “But with the Internet, we’re starting to see more of a collapsing of those demographics. With alcoholism, women drinkers hid their drinking. They were closet drinkers, whereas men’s drinking problems were more overt. The same thing is happening as the Internet comes about. It opens the door a little bit more for women to hide, to be a little bit more into the compulsive behavior.”

The long road
John and Bill have accepted their powerlessness. They admit they can’t control their addiction. Bill started attending SAA meetings in 1997, shortly after a therapist friend suggested that his problems were rooted in a sexual addiction, not an alcoholic one like Bill thought.

“I went to the meetings rather skeptically,” Bill says. “At first I didn’t think that just getting together in AA-type fashion was going to do any good. Then, all of a sudden, after I’d been going for a while, I started to feel that these were some of the most honest people I’d ever met. Without having to reveal our background, our professions, our last names, we could be totally honest. I began to notice the rapport that went on among the groups, so that’s what kept me coming back, that and the fact that I didn’t want to continue to have the same kind of problems I’d had that lead to the break-up with my wife.”

Bill’s been in SAA and SCA for five years now. He says he has a whole new attitude and a more spiritual outlook. He was sober for five years and was at the Step 5 of the 12-step program until he acted out in the beginning of July.

Bill slipped. He had compulsive, anonymous sex. Alcohol played a large part. He’s awaiting the results of an HIV/AIDS test.

He felt guilt about his slip, but he has let it go. He plans on attending 12-step meetings indefinitely.

“I’d have become an alcoholic and drunk myself to death,” Bill says, “or I’d have committed suicide, if I hadn’t been coming to these meetings.”

Back in the room at the church, John and Bill appear refreshed and relieved after telling their stories. They tell Max that he should come back and that he is welcome to attend the SAA meetings as well.

John’s struggle is a daily one that he says he will fight to the end. With a grin that spreads from ear to ear under his trimmed and friendly mustache, he declares that the length of time he is able to endure without looking at Internet pornography is increasing—but that is no excuse to relax vigilance.

“Today, I didn’t act out,” he says. “Yesterday’s gone. Tomorrow, I’ll ask again for this obsession to go away. I can only live day to day and pray that it goes away. With the way that it’s going now, I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”

Before the meeting is over, the three men stand up and clasp hands to make a circle. They recite the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

The grips tighten. They lift their connected hands up to shoulder height, shaking them like marathon winners.

“Keep coming back!” John and Bill say in unison.

Editor’s note: The names of John, Bill and Max were changed to help preserve the men’s anonymity.

Web sites

Sexual Compulsives Anonymous:

Sexual Addicts Anonymous:

Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous:

Sexaholics Anonymous:

For those opposed to 12-step programs, there is also

Rational Recovery: